Paul Boddie's Free Software-related blog

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Lenovo: What Were They Thinking?

In the past few days, there have been plenty of reports of Lenovo shipping products with a form of adware known as Superfish, originating from a company of the same name, that interferes with the normal operation of Web browser software to provide “shopping suggestions” in content displayed by the browser. This would be irritating enough all by itself, but what made the bundled software involved even more worrying was that it also manages to insert itself as an eavesdropper on the user’s supposedly secure communications, meaning that communications conducted between the user and Internet sites such as online banks, merchants, workplaces and private-and-confidential services are all effectively compromised.

Making things even worse still, the mechanism employed to pursue this undesirable eavesdropping managed to prove highly insecure in itself, exposing Lenovo customers to attack from others. So, we start this sordid affair with a Lenovo “business decision” about bundling some company’s software and end up with Lenovo’s customers having their security compromised for the dubious “benefit” of being shown additional, unsolicited advertisements in Web pages that didn’t have them in the first place. One may well ask what Lenovo’s decision-makers were thinking?

Symptoms of a Disease

Indeed, this affair gives us a fine opportunity to take a critical look at the way the bundling of software has corrupted the sale of personal computers for years, if not decades. First of all, most customers have never been given a choice of operating system or to be able to buy a computer without an operating system, considering the major channels and vendors to which most buyers are exposed: the most widely-available and widely-advertised computers only offer some Windows variant, and manufacturers typically insist that they cannot offer anything else – or even nothing at all – for a variety of feeble reasons. And when asked to provide a refund for this unwanted product that has been forced on the purchaser, some manufacturers even claim that it is free or that someone else has subsidised the cost, and that there is no refund to be had.

This subsidy – some random company acting like a kind of wealthy distant relative paying for the “benefit” of bundled proprietary software – obviously raises competition-related issues, but it also raises the issue of why anyone would want to pay for someone else to get something at no cost. Even in a consumer culture where getting more goodies is seen as surely being a good thing because it means more toys to play with, one cannot help but be a little suspicious: surely something is too good to be true if someone wants to give you things that they would otherwise make you pay for? And now we know that it is: the financial transaction that enriched Lenovo was meant to give Superfish access to its customers’ sensitive information.

Of course, Lenovo’s updated statement on the matter (expect more updates, particularly if people start to talk about class action lawsuits) tries to downplay the foul play: the somewhat incoherent language (example: “Superfish technology is purely based on contextual/image and not behavioral”) denies things like user profiling and uses terminology that is open to quite a degree of interpretation (example: “Users are not tracked nor re-targeted”). What the company lawyers clearly don’t want to talk about is what information was being collected and where it was being whisked off to, keeping the legal attack surface minimal and keeping those denials of negligence strenuous (“we did not know about this potential security vulnerability until yesterday”). Maybe some detail about those “server connections shut down in January” would shed some light on these matters, but the lawyers know that with that comes the risk of exposing a paper trail showing that everybody knew what they were getting into.

Your Money isn’t Good Enough

One might think that going to a retailer, giving them your money, and getting a product to take home would signal the start of a happy and productive experience with a purchase. But it seems that for some manufacturers, getting the customer’s money just isn’t enough: they just have to make a bit of money on the side, and perhaps keep making money from the product after the customer has taken it home, too. Consumer electronics and products from the “content industries” have in particular fallen victim to the introduction of advertising. Even though you thought you had bought something outright, advertisements and other annoyances sneak into the experience, often in the hope that you will pay extra to make them go away.

And so, you get the feeling that your money somehow isn’t good enough for these people. Maybe if you were richer or knew the right people, your money would be good enough and you wouldn’t need to suffer adverts or people spying on you, but you aren’t rich or well-connected and just have to go along with the indignity of it all. Naturally, the manufacturers would take offence at such assertions; they would claim that they have to take bribes subsidies to be able to keep their own prices competitive with the rest of the market, and of course everybody else is taking the money. That might be almost believable if it weren’t for the fact that the prices of things like bundled operating systems and “productivity software” – the stuff that you can’t get a refund for – are completely at the discretion of the organisations who make it. (It also doesn’t help these companies that they seem to be unable to deliver a quality product with a stable set of internal components, or that they introduce stupid hardware features that make their products excruciating to use.)

Everybody Hurts

For the most part, it probably is the case that if you are well-resourced and well-connected, you can buy the most expensive computer with the most expensive proprietary software for it, and maybe the likes of Lenovo won’t have tainted it with their adware-of-the-month. But naturally, proprietary software doesn’t provide you with any inherent assurances that it hasn’t been compromised: only Free Software can offer you that, and even then you must be able to insist on the right to be able to build and install that software on the hardware yourself. Coincidentally, I did once procure a Lenovo computer from a retailer that only supplied them with GNU/Linux preinstalled, with Lenovo being a common choice amongst such retailers because the distribution channel apparently made it possible for them to resell such products without Windows or other proprietary products ever becoming involved.

But sometimes the rich and well-connected become embroiled in surveillance and spying in situations of their own making. Having seen people become so infatuated with Microsoft Outlook that they seemingly need to have something bearing the name on every device they use, it is perhaps not surprising that members of the European Parliament had apparently installed Microsoft’s mobile application bearing the Outlook brand. Unfortunately for them, Microsoft’s “app” sends sensitive information including their authentication credentials off into the cloud, putting their communications (and the safety of their correspondents, in certain cases) at risk.

Some apologists may indeed claim that Microsoft and their friends and partners collecting everybody’s sensitive details for their own convenience is “not an issue for the average user”, but in fact it is a huge issue: when people become conditioned into thinking that surrendering their privacy, accepting the inconveniences of intrusive advertising, always being in debt to the companies from which they have bought things (even when those purchases have actually kept those companies in business), and giving up control of their own belongings are all “normal” things and that they do not deserve any better, then we all start to lose control over the ways in which we use technology as well as the technologies we are able to use. Notions of ownership and democracy quickly become attacked and eroded.

What Were They Thinking?

We ultimately risk some form of authority, accountable or otherwise, telling us that we no longer deserve to be able to enjoy things like privacy. Their reasons are always scary ones, but in practice it usually has something to do with them not wanting ordinary people doing unexpected or bothersome things that might question or undermine their own very comfortable (and often profitable) position telling everybody else what to do, what to worry about, what to buy, and so on. And it turns out that a piece of malware that just has to see everything in its rampant quest to monetize every last communication of the unwitting user now gives us a chance to really think about how we really want our computers and their suppliers to behave.

So, what were they thinking at Lenovo? That Superfish was an easy way to make a few extra bucks? That their customers don’t deserve anything better than to have their private communications infused with advertising? That their customers don’t need to know that people are tampering with their Internet connection? That the private information of their customers was theirs to sell to anyone offering them some money? Did nobody consider the implications of any of this at all, or was there a complete breakdown in ethics amongst those responsible? Was it negligence or contempt for their own customers that facilitated this pursuit of greed?

Sadly, the evidence from past privacy scandals involving major companies indicates that regulatory or criminal proceedings are unlikely, merely fuelling suspicions that supposed corporate incompetence – the existence of conveniently unlocked backdoors – actually serves various authorities rather nicely. It is therefore up to us to remain vigilant and, of course, to exercise our own forms of reward for those who act in our interests, along with punishment for those whose behaviour is unacceptable in a fair and democratic society.

Maybe after a break from seeing any of it for a while, our business and our money will matter more to Lenovo than that of some shady “advertising” outfit with the dubious and slightly unbelievable objective of showing more adverts to people while they do their online banking. And by then, maybe Lenovo (and everyone else) will let us install whatever software we like on their products, because many people aren’t going to be trusting the bundled software for a long time to come after this. Not that they should ever have trusted it in the first place, of course.

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